WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals by Louisiana and Kansas seeking to end their public funding to women’s healthcare and abortion provider Planned Parenthood through the Medicaid program, with President Donald Trump’s appointee Brett Kavanaugh among the justices who rebuffed the states.
The justices left intact lower court rulings that prevented Louisiana and Kansas from stripping government healthcare funding from local Planned Parenthood affiliates. The case was one of a number of disputes working their way up to the Supreme Court over the legality of state-imposed restrictions involving abortion.
Three conservative justices - Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch - dissented from the decision by the nine-member conservative-majority court, saying it should have heard the appeals by the states.
At least four justices must vote to grant review for the court to hear an appeal. Along with the four liberal justices, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts - the court’s two other conservative justices - opposed taking up the matter.
Planned Parenthood’s affiliates in Louisiana do not perform abortions, but some in Kansas do. Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income Americans, pays for abortions only in limited circumstances such as when a woman’s life is in danger.
It marked the first-known vote by Kavanaugh in a case since he joined the court in October after a fierce confirmation fight in the Senate. Kavanaugh was named by Trump to replace the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sided with the court’s liberals on social issues like abortion.
Some Kavanaugh opponents feared he would back legal efforts to overturn or further restrict the legal right to abortion.
Thomas suggested the justices who rejected the appeals put politics over the law.
“So what explains the court’s refusal to do its job here? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood,’” Thomas wrote in dissent.
“Some tenuous connection to a politically fraught issue does not justify abdicating our judicial duty,” Thomas added.
Louisiana and Kansas announced Republican-backed plans to terminate funding for Planned Parenthood through Medicaid after an anti-abortion group released videos in 2015 purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives negotiating the for-profit sale of fetal tissue and body parts. Planned Parenthood denied the allegations and called the videos heavily edited and misleading.
The organization’s affiliates in each state, as well as several patients, sued in federal court to maintain the funding.
“We regret today’s decision from the U.S. Supreme Court announcing that it fell one vote short of taking our case against Planned Parenthood,” Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer, a Republican, said in a statement.
Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, praised the court’s action, saying in a statement: “Every person has a fundamental right to healthcare, no matter who they are, where they live or how much they earn.”
Legal battles over other laws from Republican-led states could reach the court in the next year or two. Some seek to ban abortions in early pregnancy, including Iowa’s prohibition after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Others impose difficult-to-meet regulations on abortion providers such as having formal ties, called admitting privileges, at a local hospital.
The cases from Kansas and Louisiana did not challenge the constitutionality of abortion itself.
Many social and religious conservatives in the United States have argued against government funding of Planned Parenthood, and Republican politicians have made efforts at the state and federal level to eliminate public funding for abortion services.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 blocked Louisiana’s Medicaid cuts, saying the action would harm patients. The 5th Circuit said no one disputed that Planned Parenthood was actually qualified to provide the medical services it offers and the state was seeking to cut funding “for reasons unrelated to its qualifications.”
In February, the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Kansas could not block funding because states “may not terminate providers from their Medicaid program for any reason they see fit.”
Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham